BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The economically powerful region of Catalonia was electing a new parliament Sunday, and the outcome could determine whether it holds a referendum asking Catalans if they want to remain part of Spain.
In Catalonia's view, the central government is draining its finances during the nation's economic crisis.
The regional government, led by Artur Mas, called the early election as part of a power struggle with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy regarding the size of Catalonia's contribution to national coffers. But what began as a quarrel over money has turned into a test of Spain's territorial integrity.
If voters give Mas strong support Sunday, he has pledged to hold a referendum asking Catalans if they would prefer to split from Spain at a time of deep financial crisis.
Polls in Catalonia, one of Spain's few regions with its own language, forecast a majority for parties supporting a referendum on independence, a proposed plebiscite that Spain's central government has ridiculed and called "unconstitutional."
"These are the most decisive and transcendental elections in the history of Catalonia," Mas said after voting in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia in northeast Spain. "There is much at stake for all 7 million of us Catalans."
According to Rajoy, only the central government has the constitutional right to call a referendum of any kind, and then it would almost certainly have to be held nationwide.
Mas has rebutted Madrid by saying that if pro-independence lawmakers are given an absolute majority in the next four-year regional legislature, this would lend legitimacy to his call for a referendum and a need to alter the constitution to accommodate the will of the Catalan electorate.
Good weather on Sunday meant voter turnout was higher than in the previous seven elections dating back to 1988, Catalonia's government said.
Rajoy has said that talk of independence is a side issue to the country's real problem, which is to find a way to create employment and address its deficit.
While Rajoy is immersed in combating Spain's worst financial crisis in decades, Mas claims Catalonia is being asked to shoulder too much of the tax burden and that it could do better if it separated and tried to become an independent member state of the European Union.
"Five years ago I was in favor of a federal model with Spain, but now we have seen that is not viable," Miquel Angel Aragon, a 37-year-old aid worker, said after voting in Barcelona. "I am in favor of independence."
Catalonia is responsible for around a fifth of Spain's economic output, and many residents feel the central government gives back too little in recognition of the region's contribution.
Catalans have said during growing public protests that their industrialized region is being hit harder than most by austerity measures aimed at avoiding a national bailout like those needed by Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus.
Madrid has traditionally said that simplifying the state's financial model by excluding overall costs such as defense only creates a distorted image of how taxation and spending are distributed.
A rising tide of Catalan separatist sentiment was spurred when Rajoy failed to agree to Mas' proposals to lighten Catalonia's tax load and 1.5 million people turned out in Barcelona on Sept. 11 for the largest nationalist rally in the region since the 1970s.
These growing economic concerns have combined with a longstanding nationalist streak in Catalonia, which has its own cultural traditions that were harshly repressed by the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco from the end of Spain's Civil War in 1939, to Franco's death in 1975.
One of the most potent symbols of the divisions distancing Catalonia and the country's capital city can be seen in the bitter rivalry between the Barcelona and Real Madrid soccer clubs.
In recent years, at least two grassroots groups have held unofficial referendums on independence in towns throughout the region, while some small villages have gone to the extreme of declaring themselves "free Catalan territories."
Catalans are viewed by most Spaniards as thrifty, hardworking people, and most — not least many Catalans — have been shocked by how their regional debt has swelled to €42 billion ($54.4 billion) of the staggering €140 billion debt ascribed to all of Spain's regional governments.
The economic crisis has highlighted the high cost of running Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions alongside a central government. The Catalan government has had to ask for a €5 billion ($6.5 million) bailout from Spain like other indebted regions.
Mas' government counters that each year it contributes €16 billion ($21 billion) more than it gets back from Spain. It also complains that important infrastructure projects needed to revive Spain's sick economy are being left unfunded.
Even so, many people feel they are both Catalan and Spanish, and are wary of the idea of trying to divide the country.
"We are not separatists, we want to remain part of Spain," said retired industrial designer Francisco Palau, 69, who emerged from a polling station alongside his wife. "We defend current plurality," he said, adding that setting up a new state and government "would be very expensive."
About 5.2 million people were eligible to vote for candidates to fill the 135-seat Catalan parliament that sits in Barcelona.
Harold Heckle reported from Madrid.